It's not accurate to say Brian West left school early to pursue a professional soccer career. It's true West departed the University of Virginia in 1998 after his sophomore year to play for the Columbus Crew, but his college education hasn't ended.

Because West came to Major League Soccer as a Project-40 player, the league and the U.S. Soccer Federation cover tuition costs so he can continue taking college classes for five years. And West is one of the few players in Project-40 to assume a full academic load, taking three courses per quarter in three quarters since joining the Crew, which hosts D.C. United at 1 p.m. Sunday in Game 2 of MLS's Eastern Conference finals.

West, 21, isn't taking classes this quarter, but will resume soon with a year and a half to go before earning a degree in information systems from Ohio State's business school. That means balancing classes, schoolwork, training and matches.

"It's just like college, basically," said West, a graduate of Centennial High in Columbia. "It's not as tough as people would think. [Playing professionally] affects me more in the classroom. I'm not always making it to class, so it shows more in my grades."

In Columbus, West is working toward two goals. One is a degree, the other a permanent starting role on the Crew. The latter isn't easy for a player who has played forward throughout his career but has landed on a team with top-notch strikers Stern John (18 goals) and Brian McBride (five goals, 10 assists) up front.

West has played mostly at outside midfield with the Crew, appearing in 22 regular season games with 13 starts. He had one goal and four assists this season. And he has played well enough to graduate from Project-40 and earn a full-fledged roster spot.

Crew Coach Tom Fitzgerald said West still needs to learn to play both forward and midfielder to succeed. "It's tough," West said. "It's not the position I'm accustomed to nor the position I would rather play."

West's speed will prevent him from spending much time on anyone's bench. "I'd say when he wants to be, he's the fastest player on the team and one of the fastest in the league," Fitzgerald said. But West's technical skills--ball-handling, passing and receiving--are not as developed, and he lacks experience.

He could remedy that next year with the U.S. Olympic team. He's a member of the national under-23 team player pool, and he might end up playing outside midfielder next fall in Sydney, if the U.S. team qualifies, Fitzgerald said.

West may not start Sunday against United, but he should play--he has played in all three of the Crew's postseason games. He started and played 62 minutes Sunday at RFK, and the week before, he had the first goal in Columbus's series-clinching 2-0 victory at Tampa Bay.

He also suffered some dental damage in the Tampa Bay game, when Steve Ralston's head collided with his mouth. A trainer had to move a tooth back in position for West and then he went back into the game. He faces root canal surgery if the tooth doesn't heal in about two weeks. "He's had some pain in the past," Fitzgerald said. "Players like him, they get whacked a lot, because that's the only way other players can slow them down."

Slowing down--on or off the field--is one thing West isn't interested in. His schedule may get hectic, but that's fine with him, not to mention the Crew.

"I don't see any problem with him taking classes," Fitzgerald said. "Sometimes, professional athletes have too much time on their hands. Brian is a very intelligent kid, and he uses his free time very wisely."

Said West: "For me, as a player, leaving college was the best thing I could have done. I'm getting better and I continue to get better in this atmosphere, playing with these great players."